In the early 1980s, I attended a benefit at the Palm Springs Art museum alongside a host of movie stars and business tycoons. The goody bags handed out at the door to the women swishing their way inside the marble palace brimmed with expensive perfumes and silk scarves from Saks; the sculpture gardens glittered with diamonds and rubies strung around regal throats as couples took their places at linen-draped tables scattered with orchids. This was heady stuff for a girl from Cleveland, Ohio who’d stumbled into marriage to a millionaire.
In between the sorbet and the main course, I gathered the taffeta folds of my gown and tiptoed to the ladies room. Women pressed against the walls in crinoline and velvet like fluttering tulips. I squeezed in beside a matron dressed in magenta satin.
Then I looked at her.
What I saw wasn’t the woman pressed beside me, shoulder to shoulder. My mind reeled back to the glory of her youth as she’d glided across Hollywood celluloid with Fred Astaire. I saw the Ginger Rogers my parent’s generation had adored and I with them; an American icon who’d captivated the world with her beauty and her poise.
When my jaw hit the floor, Ginger’s mouth twitched with amusement. She said, “It’s hard to take a piss in here.”
Her ability to startle me proved an enduring lesson for a budding novelist. Ginger Rogers was Hollywood royalty. Yet she talked like a sailor.
Do the characters of your current WIP startle and surprise? Is their interior monologue a shocking contrast to the dialogue spoken? Do they spout comments you’d never dare utter in public?
As a novelist, you must rebel against the Hobbesian notion that life is nasty, brutish and short. This line of thinking carries the subtle message of the sameness of all human lives, the dreary realities we all must face. Yes, we all will die and the man down the street strikes me as a brute but he’s also a unique individual. I want to know why he has a Confederate flag stuck in the back window of his truck yet drives by my house every Friday with a fistful of daisies for his wife.
The astute writer knows how to reveal distinctive qualities. Consider the co-worker, the one that picks her nose while playing Candy Crush as you deal with the flotsam from her workload. Why does she only wear Sperry sneakers? There’s a Bernie Kosar bobble-head figure buried beneath the crap on her desk. Is it a memento from an idyllic childhood? A trophy from high school when she snuck her first beer?
Collecting the unique details of an outwardly common life arms the novelist with ammo to create compelling characters. Life is in the details. As readers, we long to know why a girl with a dragon tattoo is a genius on a computer and why an orphaned boy lives in a closet beneath the stairs. Forget broomsticks and Hogwarts: J. K. Rowling had you in the opening paragraphs of the Potter series—you, and millions of other readers.
Organizing these traits takes skill. The first characterizations depicted should raise more questions in the reader’s mind than they answer. The protagonist’s choice of attire should deliver subtle clues, as should his manner of speaking and thinking and stalking across the room. Humans are built to conceal: we succeed quite artfully through speech and orthodontics and the square feet of our homes. And we’re vicious: we step out of the elevator if the teenager inside is six feet tall and wearing a hoodie; we duck past the old woman with the missing teeth then risk a sly glance. As humans, we’re flawed and abhorrent and greedy. We’re also noble and foolish and decent.
Mostly we’re curious about other people’s lives. I suspect this is why so many librarians tend toward a kindness and purity the rest of us will never achieve. They’ve honed their human curiosity through the reading of countless novels and come out the other end of an exploration through literature with a true understanding of the human heart.